IU in search of confidence at Northwestern

In the midst of a four-game losing streak, Indiana seems to have lost the most important thing of all.

Its confidence.

The lack of self-assurance is being felt on both ends of the floor, but to Archie Miller, nowhere is its absence felt more than on the defensive end of the court.

After all, that’s where Indiana’s identity is supposed to live. It’s the area where Miller has concentrated his philosophies the most and, when things are operating appropriately, the place from which all good things are born.

As Indiana tries to shake out of the January doldrums at Northwestern tonight in a 9 o’clock tipoff, fixing a broken defensive approach may be the first step toward doing so.

“We’ve lost our confidence defensively,” Miller said. “I do think that some of the focus on what’s going on is guys being able to make shots or scoring at times, but the one thing we have always hung our hat on, especially at the very beginning, was the identity that this team was going to have to play with and how hard they were going to have to compete and dig in.”

That wasn’t an issue during the first two months, as Indiana churned out a series of narrow, gritty victories with strong second-half defensive efforts.

Through the first 10 games, Indiana held all but two opponents, Duke and Louisville, under a point per possession. At that point — and across that same span — IU had limited four opponents (Montana State, Marquette, Penn State and Louisville) to their least efficient offensive showings. Two more opponents (Chicago State and Arkansas) saw their second-least efficient offensive performances come against the Hoosiers.

“Some of our big wins, we were down,” Miller said. “We had deficits. We were down under two minutes, and you forget that. I think what we’ve tried to really center back in on is the edge that we are not playing with right now defensively, and the teams that we are playing can really expose you and take advantage of that.”

Indeed, Indiana’s early-season defensive success hasn’t adjusted to the uptick in competition that conference season has produced. During the Hoosiers’ current four-game skid, each of IU’s opponents have scored more than a point per possession.

Michigan turned in its most efficient offensive effort of the season while scoring 1.26 points per possession against the Hoosiers on Jan. 6. Maryland (1.21 ppp), meanwhile, posted its second-most efficient offensive night in conference play against the Hoosiers on Jan. 11.

Nebraska and Purdue had their moments in recent games, too. Indiana had no solutions for stopping, let alone guarding, Boilermaker big men Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams in the second half of Saturday’s loss, a troubling issue given what IU is about to see at Northwestern.

“We have to be more together,” IU sophomore forward Justin Smith said. “We can’t really get strung out because we play more of a pack-line defense. The opponent is spreading us out, which you saw (at Purdue). They were able to get rolls and dunks and easy baskets.”

Wildcats center Dererk Pardon converted 11 of his 15 field goal attempts, each of them coming in or around the paint, in IU’s 68-66 win over Northwestern on Dec. 1.

To some degree, it was a sign of things to come in conference play for Indiana, which has allowed opponents to shoot 55 percent (82-for-149) on 2-point attempts during its four-game slide.

“Like I said, I think they’re spreading us out,” Smith said. “The strength of our defense is our togetherness and our tight pack. Being able to spread us out has us running around, chasing, which again, makes us tired, and we’re not used to doing that. We’ve just got to continue to work on tightening up our defense, get back to where we were.”

If there’s good news for Indiana, it’s that Northwestern’s offense isn’t exactly humming. The Wildcats rank 13th in league games in adjusted offensive efficiency, and they have been held under a point per possession in each of their first seven conference games.

Right now, IU needs stops to feed its ailing offense — and developing the confidence to earn those stops could go a long way toward fixing other issues inside Indiana’s team.

From there, the Hoosiers might be able to gradually get this season back on course.

“We’ve got to get some guys playing with some confidence,” Miller said. “I think that’s a big thing for us.”